A Reality Unredacted
Reading Kill Anything That Moves was a disturbing and emotional experience for me. I found myself tearing up, gagging at times, as I turned the pages. The book released ghosts long buried in my psyche, stirring memories of anger and bitterness: anger at arrogant policymakers; bitterness at a seemingly indifferent public.
The book also brought back feelings of melancholy, frustration and loneliness as I recalled how much I enjoyed living in a foreign land despite the war, how impossible it was to capture the attention of an uninformed people and to share adequately with them the unconscionable brutalities of the Vietnam War.
After graduating from Stanford in 1966, a time of high idealism in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, and bolstered by Thomas Merton’s writings on nonviolence, I joined a nonprofit organization founded by Mennonites and Quakers, the International Voluntary Services. I asked to serve in Vietnam as a volunteer. After intense language training, I was sent to the capital of Phu Yen Province, a coastal town in central Vietnam called Tuy Hoa. For two years I lived there and worked among war refugees in makeshift camps built on sand. Most of the thousands of displaced farmers were women, children and the elderly. The men were off fighting for one side or the other.
I vividly remember the stench of discarded humanity, people almost without possessions packed into tin huts in camps they were told they could not leave. Disease and death were as common as hunger. Two miles away, down the coast, U.S. fighter bombers took off around the clock to bomb the villages from which the refugees streamed. Their stated mission was to support embattled troops. Beneath the wings of those aircraft, soldiers would often hand paint American flags, imagery that forced me into a new and unknown state of conflicted identity and isolation.
I was part of the so-called “other half” of the U.S. effort, the “nation building” or “pacification” half. I did what little I could. I gathered marbles for the young children. I frequently requested food, usually to little avail. Tons of U.S. bulgur wheat earmarked to feed the refugees were sold in the local market, lining the pockets of corrupt Vietnamese officials. I began small craft projects to keep young girls from turning to the usual trade, prostitution, to support their families. As Nick Turse’s powerful and moving account of the war points out, the “nation building half” in reality amounted to a tenth of the U.S. effort, at most. One of my volunteer colleagues at the time described our work as “the Band-Aid on the genocide” going on in Vietnam.
Few Americans in Vietnam could or would ever mingle with the local people. Most were taught to fear and kill anyone wearing black pajamas, the so-called Viet Cong. They tragically failed to understand that black was the normal garb of Vietnamese farmers.
My experience was different. For nearly five years I mingled among the Vietnamese, first as a volunteer, later as a journalist. I ate their food, learned their customs, history and culture. Eventually I married a social worker from the Mekong delta.
I.V.S. volunteers were witnesses to history. A hundred or so in number at any one time, we saw the effects of the war from the ground up. Each of us viewed patches of a larger quilt. No one could see the whole. Even the best journalists of the time—among them David Halberstam, Peter Arnett, Neil Sheehan, Sidney Schanberg and Gloria Emerson—could not report the larger fabric of what amounted to incalculable brutality.
Kill Anything That Moves meticulously fills out the record and lets us see the larger picture. After nearly 50 years and tens of thousands of books written on Vietnam, it reveals as never before patterns of U.S. war atrocities. Turse began his methodical research of the war after stumbling across secret Pentagon files that gathered reports of military atrocities. He then studied newly released classified information, court-martial records, press accounts and secondary literature. (Chapter One alone has 72 footnotes.) He interviewed many U.S. veterans and Vietnamese survivors. He eventually concludes that the slaughter of Vietnamese civilians was common throughout the war, the natural result of military policies that included indoctrinating young recruits to fear and kill “gooks,” policies that used body counts as metrics for success, that promoted soldiers for “killed in action” tallies, that employed search-and-destroy missions and free-fire zones, areas cleared of civilians where all others were considered hostile.
Turse writes, “I came to see the indiscriminate killing of South Vietnamese noncombatants—the endless slaughter that wiped out civilians day after day, month after month, year after year, throughout the Vietnam War—was neither accidental nor unforeseeable.” Atrocities, he writes, were not intended so much as they flowed from widely accepted military procedures, policies that assured and overlooked rape, torture and killings. An estimated two million civilians died during the war.
The author’s findings match my personal experiences. I witnessed U.S. racism and prejudice on a daily basis. It was taught as a survival mechanism. And eventually, in March 1968, there was May Lai, where U.S. soldiers slaughtered more than 500 civilians in cold blood. Those killings occurred over a full day in the village. Soldiers even took time off to eat lunch before continuing with the murders, Turse tells us, adding that it was unique not in its nature but only in its scope.
Months later I traveled to My Lai by motorbike alone to interview survivors. I recall one young girl named Do Thi Huu, 13 at the time. She told me she saw her father shot by a soldier after being asked to walk out of the family’s thatched hut dwelling. He then took her, she said, and rounded up her relatives, ordering them to sit in a circle. Once set, he opened fire on the group; she became buried beneath a stack of corpses.
On another occasion I remember entering a bombed-out village hours after it had been destroyed by U.S. war planes. While dwellings still smoldered and broken palm trees lined pathways, I walked through the village. At one point I encountered a middle-aged man who approached me, carrying his lifeless 4-year-old daughter in his arms. Staring at me, he said, “Tell President Johnson how my daughter died.”
The U.S. military flew 3.4 million aircraft sorties during the war, expending 30 billion pounds of munitions, releasing the equivalent in explosive force of 640 Hiroshima bombs.
Even now, we have yet to acknowledge the evil we unleashed in Vietnam. This book should force some long overdue soul-searching. Kill Anything That Moves should become mandatory reading in all U.S. history classes and in classrooms where warfare is taught. But can we face the dark side of our military policies? Can we, as a nation, learn from the past? I am not optimistic. Reading this book and then passing it along could possibly pave the way. We owe this much to the ghosts of wars past and those to come.